Why it matters if Trump pays his aides' legal bills

Image: President Trump Meets With The National Association of Manufacturers
U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House March 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Despite his considerable wealth, Donald Trump is not paying for his own legal team. As the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal continues, the president has several attorneys representing his interests, but it's the Republican National Committee -- and by extension, its donors -- paying the tab.

The same is reportedly true of Donald Trump Jr., who helps lead the president's private enterprise, and who's supposed to be steering clear of politics altogether.

And what about the officials throughout the White House who also face legal scrutiny? Up until very recently, it's been assumed they're on their own, but the Washington Post reported that they may have a rich benefactor: their boss.

President Trump plans to spend at least $430,000 of his personal funds to help cover the mounting legal costs incurred by White House staff and campaign aides related to the ongoing investigations of Russian meddling in last year's election, a White House official said. [...]The arrangement drew immediate criticism from Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, who suggested on Twitter that it is rife with potential conflicts."A potential witness or target of an investigation (and boss of investigators) paying for legal fees of other potential witnesses or targets?" Shaub wrote.

Axios' original report on this used the words "pledge" and "promise" to describe the president's intention to defray the costs of his aides' legal representation.

I'm highlighting the specific verbs because Trump's credibility in this area is something of a joke. This is, after all, a president who's been caught lying about contributions to veterans' charities. Sure, he may say he's prepared to use his own money to help cover the legal costs of his team, but what Trump says and what Trump does often have little to do with one another.

But just for the sake of conversation, let's say the "plan" is legitimate. Let's assume that Trump will follow through on this vow, grab his checkbook, and start writing checks to his staffers' law firms. That brings us back to Walter Shaub's concerns.

Given the circumstances, this need not be seen as a story about magnanimity. In the Russia scandal, the sitting president is in legal jeopardy -- there's every reason to believe he's under investigation for obstruction of justice, for example -- and those around him are, at a minimum, potential witnesses who may be able to shed light on Trump's alleged wrongdoing.

And that's where the trouble kicks in. What happens if officials in the West Wing have information to share that may be damaging to the president, who also happens to be paying for these officials' legal counsel?

In other words, we don't know if Trump is prepared to start writing personal checks to help his team because he wants to help them or if he wants to help himself. It's not hard to imagine the president thinking that he can perhaps buy his aides' silence by opening his wallet and discouraging them from "flipping."